DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenwriter: Gus Van Sant, based on the memoir by John Callahan
Runtime: 114 mins.
Australian release date: 27 September 2018
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 18 September 2018.
Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is based on the memoir of the same name by John Callahan, the cartoonist and subject of the film. Set in Portland, Oregon, the film exposes the life of an alcoholic who survived a terrible motor vehicle accident but was left a quadriplegic at the age of 21. This in itself is extraordinary but Callahan was not an ordinary man, he was a fighter with talent and a vivid imagination, and he became a professional cartoonist some years after his life-changing injury. His cartoons appeared in the alternative newspaper Willamette Week from 1983 up until his death in 2010. The black humour of his drawings caused much controversy, resulting in boycotts and protests to the Portland newspaper, but Callahan continued to depict his macabre and disabled images with impunity. He is recorded as saying, “My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands.”
Van Sant’s choice of Joaquin Phoenix for the part of Callahan is spot on. Phoenix has always shown an edgy side and he fits comfortably in this role as a character with an unhealthy regard for alcohol coupled to a healthy disregard for any criticism of his boozing. One night, after a particularly hefty binge session, he is convinced to take the passenger’s seat in his own car by a casual drinking buddy, Dexter (Jack Black), with whom he has been bar-hopping. Inevitably, the car crashes and Callahan winds up in rehabilitation while Dexter walks away unscathed and disappears out of his life. A gorgeous Swedish rehab therapist, Annu (Rooney Mara), helps him recover and they begin a romantic relationship. She encourages him to enter AA sessions where he meets Donnie (Jonah Hill), a wealthy, gay, charismatic group leader who “rocked a Tom Petty look”, according to Callahan. Donnie advised him to work on his drawing, difficult because he only had limited movement of his arms. Callahan embraces the challenge, though, and made a career out of being considered politically incorrect. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Comedian Robin Williams originally bought the rights to Callahan’s book and approached Van Sant many years ago with the idea of writing the script for a film. He also planned to play the title role. Van Sant acknowledges that the performance he got from Phoenix is different to the one Williams would have given, because the original script “took a lot of liberties and was way wackier than the book, maybe because Robin was going to play Callahan… in the end I focused mainly on just one of the chapters, which is the story of John’s recovery from alcoholism.” The scenes between Phoenix and Hill are sobering (sorry!) as, in real life, Donnie and John used their dark senses of humour to battle their shared demons and Donnie refused to allow John to use his condition as an excuse, something that John appreciated. Hill states that, “Apparently they would make mean jokes to one another and John really respected that about Donnie.” Black, also, is impressive in his small part, especially during an improvised passage when both he and Callahan reunite after a long period. Black says, “There’s a lot going on in that scene. It’s a moment my character clearly had dreaded for many years. So there’s a lot of guilt, but there’s also a certain amount of relief that comes when it finally happens. It added a little redemption to what otherwise could have come off as a pretty despicable character.”
Redemption is a theme worth exploring in cinema and one we see quite often, which is a positive thing. In Callahan’s case, his redemption seems to have come through exchanging a harmful addiction for a positive one. Van Sant, who also comes from Portland and who knew Callahan personally, says he saw in him a trait he thinks a lot of artists share: “Artists start something at some point in their lives and they never finish it. Whether it’s flower arranging or cooking or making movies, they just can’t stop. It’s that obsessional quality that makes the artist. In John’s case, he could not stop cartooning. It became the main reason for living…” Fortunately, though, he was able to stop drinking. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a rewarding experience and, despite the tragic overtones, an uplifting one.